Robynne’s mind raced with possibilities; what could explain the stark difference in NightKnight’s appearance? The Standridge Stones? Monster attack? Growth spurt? Empathokinetic interference? Maybe he’d just been working out? Wait, no, he had asked a question. Focus. She needed to focus.
NightKnight had asked about the gaming tournament. His voice implied he didn’t know. But that didn’t make sense. He was very active on the club’s forums. He knew all the events coming up. He’d have to. And he approached her, but there was no way he didn’t recognize her. She didn’t like how vain that thought sounded, but short, stacked scarlettes coming to SFEERS events weren’t exactly a dime a dozen.
She searched his eyes. Had they always been that intense shade of ice blue? Donut! She had to stop getting lost in cute guys’ eyes. But he hadn’t seemed cute before. What was going on? Regardless, he looked nervous. Like he wasn’t sure what he was doing. On a hunch, she decided to pretend she didn’t know him. “Oh yeah, for sure.” She affected an upwards inflection to her voice, the same one that Stacy seemed to use at all times. “It’s for a game called Mega Mash Family: Battle. You heard of it I assume?”
NightKnight’s shoulders relaxed. “Oh. Uh… yeah. I mean, hard not to. Just came out. Everyone is over the moon about it.” He bit his bottom lip as he searched for something to say. Something about the look in his eyes told her he was trying to help. Maybe he had seen her being leered at by the meathead and he had decided to step in? Why? Robynne was pretty sure he didn’t like her. Their frequent snipes over comms were proof enough of that. So why try to help her out? “Uh, you play?”
“I dabble a bit. I’m no pro or anything. My roommates’ boyfriends play a lot though. I won’t be shocked if one of them wins it. I main B.I.T., myself. What about you? Had a chance to play it since it came out?”
“Huh? Oh…” NightKnight scratched his inexplicably miscolored hair with an amused smile. Was that… relief this ruse was working? He wasn’t a very good actor. Or maybe… no, he had to know he was talking to Waveform… right? She just could not get a proper read on this version of him. Strangely, he was easier to follow on comms. “I’ve played a few matches, but I’m more of a PC gamer.”
The meathead cleared his throat. “Okay buddy, just take the flyer and move along. You’ve bothered her enough.”
Wow. What an absolute cartoon character this guy was. Robynne slowly rolled her vision his way. She wanted to tell him off, but she had learned from Kara that sometimes giving people the cold shoulder could be more effective. “Oh, you’re still here? Sorry, didn’t mean to waste your time. You can leave now.”
Meathead blinked in shock. “Excuse me?”
It took Robynne every ounce of self-control she had to not shake her head in disbelief. This guy was an absolute caricature of a fratboy. How could he actually exist in real life? “I’m here to promote SFEERS Mash tournament. You’re not interested. That’s fine. Now go away so I can promote it to someone who is actually interested.”
Meathead squinted, apparently experiencing as much disbelief at Robynne as she had at him. “You can’t be serious.”
Robynne opened her mouth but was cut off as the metallic-tightrope texture of NightKnight’s aura tensed further. She could feel it flare out and felt herself become more alert. Awake. She could almost hear a low note with her empathokinetic sense as NightKnight stepped forward, in between Robynne and Meathead. The aura hummed with more confidence than his body language implied. “She really c-couldn’t be more clear with you. She’s asked you with more politeness than she should. Twice now. Just go.”
Meathead glared down at NightKnight, bowed up and stepped forward. “You think you’re some hot shit? I’m gonna—” His right hand balled into a fist.
Uh oh. NightKnight may have, inexplicably, become bigger and leaner, but this guy still clearly worked out regularly and had biceps the size of cantaloupes. This wasn’t going to end well for NightKnight if she didn’t prevent this from escalating. “You’re gonna what? Assault him? In the middle of campus? With me watching and just itching to tell the campus police about the self-important peacock whose ego was so fragile he beat someone up to make himself feel better?”
Meathead blinked and seemed to regain his senses as he glanced around and remembered he was out in public. To NightKnight’s credit, though, despite the fact he was shaking a little, he didn’t shrink at all and his aura only flared… brighter? Tighter? Louder? She really needed to invent new words to describe empathokinetics.
Robynne continued her onslaught, hoping the guy would finally leave. “Was that what you were gonna do? Or maybe, instead, you’ll just do the smart thing, put on your big boy pants and say there are plenty of fish in the sea, not let one woman’s rejection get to you and then walk away. You know, like a functioning adult instead of a hormone-controlled child.”
Meathead sneered at Robynne, seemingly having forgotten about NightKnight for a moment. He looked her up and down and flared his nostrils in a way that made her want to laugh at how stupid he looked from her much lower angle. “What a bitch.” He stormed off in a huff, like a petulant child being told to clean their room.
NightKnight’s aura flared hotter and he opened his mouth. Yikes. That was not going to help. The meathead clearly had some anger issues, but she had heard more than her fair share of NightKnight’s meltdowns over chat. Robynne placed her hand on his shoulder. “Woah there. Just let him stew.”
NightKnight snapped around, indignant rage burning in his pretty blue eyes. “He just called you—”
“I have ears too, NightKnight. I know what he called me. Sticks and stones, man. I’m not going to waste my time feeling hurt over what a caveman like him says.”
NightKnight’s hands shook. At first she had thought it was nervousness, but she now saw it was adrenaline. NightKnight hadn’t been afraid to get into a fight… or, well, maybe he had been, but that fear was clearly getting overridden by the righteous fury that burned within. “I can’t believe … it just…”
Robynne needed to calm him down. They weren’t friends by any stretch, but he was a guildie. And she did feel a little guilty that she had kind of taken over his PvP group. It hadn’t been on purpose; the other SFEERS players had just gravitated to the more skilled and socially capable player. Still, she was responsible for him losing some social standing, even if it hadn’t been intentional.
Plus, there was the fact that NightKnight was showing up out of nowhere with a textured aura. This meant… something. Upon closer examination, it wasn’t like Dale’s or Fretribution’s auras. Theirs felt more like an area-of-effect cells centered around themselves. Cammy’s was similar, though Robynne had seen her focus it on someone, not like casting a spell, but more like she could move where the area of influence was a little. The more Robynne had examined Cammy’s aura, the more she was convinced that Cammy didn’t know what she was doing or even that she was doing something. It was too clumsy; like an elephant moving around in a grocery store, it couldn’t help but knock into things. But NightKnight’s was something different altogether.
His aura felt attached to Meathead. Like a rope had been tied between them. With each step Meathead stomped, the tension in the “rope” increased. Was that because it was like a physical rope, or was it because with each step, NightKnight’s seething anger seemed to burn hotter?
Well, as Vivian had said, Robynne was a woman of science. It was time for an experiment… and to calm him down before he did something stupid. “Yeah, I know. He’s a tool. But we can’t get into a long fight. We don’t have a healer.”
The tension in his aura slackened somewhat and he looked down at Robynne. “I… what?”
Robynne chuckled and pointed at NightKnight. “You play a tank and you drew aggro. I play DPS and dealt the damage, though more with my words than daggers. But we don’t have a healer. So we better not go fighting bosses without one. Wouldn’t you say?”
NightKnight blinked. Then, like hot air being released from a pressure cooker, he let out an amused snort. The aura-rope went slack. He still radiated that tense, metallic thrum of alertness, but it didn’t have the urgency to it anymore. And it no longer seemed focused on the meathead retreating with his wounded pride. “I… guess I did kind of draw aggro, huh?” NightKnight let out a long sigh, as if he hadn’t breathed in a minute or two. “Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to go all white knight. I just sort of…” He trailed off, shaking his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I was doing. You probably would have handled it better on your own without me butting in.”
“Maybe. Maybe not,” Robynne lied. She did feel she could have handled it better on her own. And, on some level, maybe it would have been better for herself if she had. She needed more experience dealing with pigs like that. However, now wasn’t the time for that. “You started out just fine. Pretending to not know me or about the tournament was a good touch.”
”Yeah, gave me an excuse to engage with someone besides him. Pretending to be socially awkward enough to just interrupt a conversation was a good idea.”
“Uh, yeah.” NightKnight coughed. “That was… intentional.”
Apparently Robynne had been too quick to assume his awkwardness was a feature of his approach, rather than a bug. With the threat gone, his aura had calmed down; still textured, but no longer humming the way it had before. Robynne was trying to think of a way to test it further. She could start an argument with him, maybe? It would be a good test, but given how tense their interactions had been online, she didn’t want to throw that away a chance to smooth it all over. Maybe she—
Stacy rushed over. “What was that, Rosy?”
NightKnight raised an eyebrow. “Rosy?”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, hoping NightKnight wouldn’t pursue it further. “As for what that was, that was an absolute pig-headed tool that someone promised she’d be over to help with.”
“Sorry,” Stacy winced, “I was chatting up a group and didn’t, like, notice until it looked like a fight was about to break out.” Stacy squinted at NightKnight. “Speaking of, you look familiar. Have I met you?”
NightKnight paled a little. “Uh, not that I know of.”
“You might have met at the SFEERS social,” Robynne interjected.
“Oh. Yeah.” NightKnight nodded. “I remember. You came with Waveform didn’t you?”
Stacy chuckled. “I love that you all go by your gamer names… I wonder though… do you two even know one another’s real names?” She glanced between the pair with a grin.
Robynne and NightKnight shared nervous glances. “Uhhhh…” Nightnight stared down at Robynne and weakly offered up, “Ssssscarrrrlet?”
Stacy erupted into a giggly fit as Robynne’s shoulders slumped. “Scarlet? Seriously?”
NightKnight took a step back, his aura tightening again. “What? I thought maybe with your hair and your accent—”
“I’m not an anime character who’s named by their hair color,” Robynne huffed. “Besides, my accent ain’t that thick.”
“You could have just admitted that you didn’t know. I mean, how would you have liked it if I had guessed your name was ‘Copper’ based on your hair color?”
NightKnight blinked. “I mean… actually you would have been kind of close.”
It was Robynne’s turn to raise her eyebrow. “Wait, really?”
“Yeah. Connor. My uh… my name is Connor.”
Something flashed in Stacy’s eyes that told Robynne the cheerleader was entertaining matchmaking thoughts. Great. As if she needed this. “Well, my name is Stacy. Look at us. Learning all each other’s real names. So, you came to defend the damsel’s honor? Very chivalrous of you, Connor.”
He shrugged, starting to blush. “I mean, she probably would have done better on her own. I almost started a fight… one that likely would not have gone well for me.”
Interesting. He had bulked up some, but not enough that he would have won a fight with a guy built like that. The fact that he knew that indicated that he didn’t have supernatural strength or some sort of empathokinetic upgrade that would make a fight easy for him… or that he was smart enough to hide that fact if he did have some empathokinetic advantage. She needed to find out more.
“Well, regardless,” Robynne said, searching for something to keep the conversation going, “it was nice that my tank had my back. Sorry for the topic change, but I swear you weren’t this tall last we met.”
“Oh,” NightKnight looked down at himself. “Uh, thanks for noticing. I’ve been working out.”
Stacy squinted. “Working out? What exercise makes you taller?”
“Huh? Oh, sorry. I meant I’ve been working out on my posture. I mean, ugh, I mean I’ve been working on my posture. Trying to hunch over less, I mean. And I think I hit a little growth spurt too. My dad apparently had a late growth spurt as well, so… uh… maybe it’s genetic?”
“Uh huh. Maybe.” That certainly sounded suspicious. “What about your hair? I remember it being—”
“Oh, that?” He scratched his hair nervously. The light glinted off it, and Robynne could almost swear the reddish-brown had a metallic sheen to it. “Yeah, I don’t know about that. Then again, I know a few people whose hair changes out here, so maybe whatever’s in the water is taking?”
Yes. People’s hair would change to unnatural shades here. Like her own scarlette hair—a trait that she apparently shared with her mother, judging by photos. However, those photos hadn’t shown up as scarlette when she grew up. No, back in Deepwater those pictures had shown a natural redhead. Regular people were affected by whatever reality filter the Standridge Stones created. Still, wasn’t NightKnight a sophomore? “Maybe. How long you been here again?”
“Oh, this is my second year.” NightKnight shuffled nervously. Robynne thought it might be from her getting too close to the truth… then again, he was also socially awkward and wasn’t used to pretty cheerleaders asking him questions, so it could easily be explained away.
Stacy gave an easy smile. How Robynne envied how casual she could make any conversation seem. “Took a bit to take but it, like, suits you. I was hoping mine would get a more exotic shade but, alas, still just my plain jane brown. Boring.”
“I mean uh… th-thanks. But yeah. Does seem weird it took so long, though. I wonder if it has anything to do with the monsters and stuff.”
That was interesting. Most people never brought up the monsters in any tangible way. They treated them and the Spirit Guard like one would the weather or regular petty crime. “You think so?”
NightKnight blushed and shrugged. “I mean… eh, I’m probably just being paranoid.”
There was something here, Robynne could feel it. Literally. His aura was tensing up again. “I mean, seems to me like it could be possible. Cheerleader warriors seem to be at least a little odd.”
NightKnight’s eyes lit up. “I… I mean… I think so too. Just… everyone else seems to… well… so, I actually am returning from a meeting about it.” His aura flared up more, thrumming to Robynne’s empathokinteic sense. Not violently like before with the meathead, but with anticipation. Like a guitar string being pulled back.
“Oh,” Stacy chirped with interest, “are you a ConSpiriter then?”
“Oh… uh… we don’t really like that term,” NightKnight muttered. “We prefer ‘Spirit Guard investigator.’ ‘ConSpiriter’ makes us sound like we’re nutjobs.”
Spirit Guard investigator? Oh, she did not like the sound of that. “I mean, either seems fine to me.”
Stacy waved NightKnight off in her casual, friendly way. “Oh, but ‘ConSpiriter’ is easier to say. Plus, like, totes more fun. I’d lean more into it if I were you. Anyway, like, I didn’t realize there was an official club or anything like that trying to figure stuff out.”
“Figure what stuff out?” Robynne said, hoping she hid the concern in her voice. The Disconnection Effect suddenly felt like very flimsy armor for her identity.
“Oh, we aren’t really a formal club. More just… people wanting to figure out what all this weirdness going on is. Some of the people that come to these meetings aren’t even college students.”
These must be the people that Noriko and Kunapipi had said were what the Hush Corps were created for. She needed more intel. “I see, so with the recent monster attacks and that new Spirit Guardian being added, you guys probably have a lot of work recently, huh?”
NightKnight frowned. “Spirit Guardian?”
“Yeah,” Robynne said with a shrug, “wouldn’t that be what you’d call a single member of the Spirit Guard?” She hoped playing dumb was the right move.
Stacy shook her head. “Forgive her, Connor. As you can tell by her delicious accent she’s, like, not from around here.”
“My accent isn’t that thick,” Robynne moaned.
“If you say so,” Stacy giggled. “But no, they’re just Spirit Guards.” Stacy turned to NightKnight with a grin. “So, Connor, any word yet on what her name is?”
NightKnight smiled the way nerds often do when they get to talk about their passions. “The new one?”
“Yeah, the violette with the blue outfit.”
Violette? Apparently Nick had been doing a good job passing around fake photos.
“Well, we’ve gotten two fights where she’s been involved. We’ve only been able to get four photos of her from security cameras, and one was black and white. Her hair has shown up as violette, emerelde, and burgundy so far. A couple of people interviewed after the Buy Bright incident got a look at her, but their testimonies of her hair also fluctuate. Whatever magic is going on around the others that makes their hair constantly change color affects her.”
Robynne let out an annoyed snort. “Magic…”
“Ah, so you’re part of the crowd that, like, believes the hair changes color? I personally think the magic is messing with our brains or stuff; you know, making it harder to recognize them.”
NightKnight shook his head but kept an even voice, “I don’t know. That doesn’t make sense to me. I mean, if that were the case, why does the hair show up different on cameras? Cameras don’t have brains to be messed with.”
Stacy held up a finger. “Ah, but we’re the ones looking at them. It’s how our brains interpret the image, maybe?”
NightKnight nodded. “Yeah, we considered that, but we’ve put the images through image editing programs. We can look at the actual hex code colors that come through. If it’s some sort of magic that interferes with perception then it somehow also messes with computers too. I mean… maybe it’s some sort of quantum effect where the magic affects any observer, but that gets into some real philosophical questions about what is an observer and I don’t feel very qualified to talk about that.”
Stacy laughed. “Wow… yeah, you’ve definitely thought a lot more about this than I have. I’m not even sure what any of that means.”
NightKnight blushed. “Sorry. We… have a lot of sciency types in our Spirit Guard Investigation group. Even a few professors here on campus. Conversations can get a bit in the weeds.”
Robynne squinted. “Then why do you keep saying ‘magic’?”
“You said there were lots of science types. Why do you keep saying ‘magic’ instead of ‘technology’?”
“Oh, yeah.” NightKnight’s blush deepened. “We don’t literally mean magic, of course.”
Stacy quirked her eyebrow up at the pair of them. “Why, ‘of course,’ Connor? I mean, the stuff they do seems pretty magical to me.”
NightKnight nodded. “Yeah, but that’s only because we have a poor understanding of it. If you were to show lasers, batteries, or computers to someone in 1800 they’d say it was magic or witchcraft of some kind. We just sort of say ‘magic” as shorthand for ‘thing we don’t understand’ because as soon as we do understand it, it ceases to be magic. It’s then science because we can, you know, quantify what happens and use it to predict future outcomes.”
Robynne pursed her lips. How was it that NightKnight, of all people, was the one who got it? Even her fellow Spirit Guards wanted to think of it as the ever-so-vague magic. “An excellent summary.”
NightKnight gave a nervous smile. “Oh, uh, thanks.”
“So… these ‘ConSpiriters’ are an official group or something that tries to figure out what’s going on?”
NightKnight’s smile gave way to a frown. “I mean, not official or anything but someone has to. The cops have long since given up actually trying to figure this stuff out. The people in this city are under attack from something that is making these monsters. And the only thing that stands in their way is an equally unexplained troupe of super-powered cheerleaders?” NightKnight looked off into the distance as if he was trying to see something. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly sleep well at night thinking that we can’t protect ourselves and our fate rests in the hands of some giggly cheerleaders.”
Robynne winced at that. Open mouth and insert foot; it did seem to be the NightKnight way. Stacy giggled awkwardly. “Present company excluded of course?”
NightKnight blinked and his eyes flickered to the cheer uniforms they wore. “Oh… I… sorry. I didn’t mean…”
Stacy laughed harder and gave him a playful punch to his arm. “We’re messing with you.”
“Don’t say ‘we’,” Robynne snarked. “I was perfectly fine not pointing out the faux pas.”
“Well one of us had to say something, Robynne. We both know how defensive you are about your precious Cheer Squad.”
Robynne rolled her eyes, turning her attention back to NightKnight. His face was a mixture of regret, anger, and confusion. She could relate. She had similarly stuck her foot in her own mouth plenty of times in high school. And she could also relate to this Spirit Guard stuff. She too had felt powerless versus Polygal and Day LaMode. Had she not turned out to be a Spirit Guard, how would she have reacted? Probably very similarly to how NightKnight did—honey, she might’ve become a ConSpiriter herself.
However, it was curious that most of the populace was never too worried about the monsters due to the influence of the Standridge Stones. Why were these ConSpiriters different? Was it related to this aura she currently felt radiating out of him? Did they all have similar auras? Regardless, this was a dangerous conversation for her to be having. At least the Disconnection Effect seemed to shield her from any suspicion. Maybe she should change the subject from…
“So,” Stacy chirped, “we’ll let the insult slide. We’re totes awesome like that. Tell me though, you were saying you did stuff like interview witnesses and stuff?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. I mean, we try.” The color visibly returned to NightKnight’s face. He was clearly very happy to move on from his mistake. “Whoever is willing anyway. Or who we can find. The cops have started doing a lot of work to hide witnesses from us because they think we’re kooks. Personally, I just think they don’t like that we’re doing their jobs for them.”
“Oh wow, then had things turned out a little differently we might have, like, met that way.”
NightKnight squinted. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, I was at Buy Bright right before the monster attacked. What was her name again?”
“‘Cell-celia,’ according to reports.” Robynne had to stop herself from instinctively feeling at her abdomen where the monster had struck. The wound had healed without even the faintest hint of a scar, but just bringing Cell-celia up seemed to make the spot vibrate with a phantom pain. “We haven’t gotten a primary source on that yet, though. We’re not quite sure where the cops got that name… but you’re saying you were there right before the attack?”
“Oh yeah. I was getting a new case for my phone. I actually… oh, Robynne was there too! I saw her there with her friends, the boy Vivian’s dating and… I want to say Eli?”
Robynne froze as NightKnight’s eyes shot to her with excitement. “Wait… you were there for the attack? Isn’t Cory the same as CannedBurrito? Are you kidding me? Why didn’t you mention this sooner? We’ve gotten almost no information from the past three attacks. The Arcade has been kept tight and somehow there’s almost no footage from the mall. If you saw something, this could be big!”
Oh. This was bad. Very bad.